I’m going to venture a guess here and say that the vast majority of folks wouldn’t be able to point to Moldova on a map. Admittedly a few months ago I couldn’t either. Once a part of Romania and once a part of the former USSR, this tiny landlocked country nestled between the aforementioned Romania and Ukraine, seems kind of ‘left behind’ by the rest of the world. It can’t really afford to sustain itself, Romania isn’t in a position to take it back and Ukraine? …Well…a conversation for another time perhaps. And so it remains the poorest country in Europe.
Curiosity got the better of us and we decided to trundle up from Bucharest on the ancient tracks to Moldova’s capital city, Chisinau. The stuffy overnight train stopped at the border once for passport control and as we managed to get back to sleep we stopped again, this time to change the wheels! All of them! The two countries use different track widths so the 4am wake up call was awful, loud steel and iron clanking and shaking the train as each rail car was jacked up, and had each set of wheels removed and replaced to fit on the narrower tracks.
That didn’t help the day get started well, but a couple hours later we rolled into the city and were greeted by drab soviet era buildings which emitted a fairly depressing atmosphere. Undaunted, we set out to explore. Parks, fountains, statues and busts of famous figures from the past but there is a very noticeable absence of tourism, or anything related to it. There are a few markets here and there with glum and indifferent vendors selling knick knacks from the communist days, but not a postcard to be found! It is definitely a different world here.
Its biggest export, surprisingly to some, including me, is wine. Moldovans are the some of the top alcohol consumers per capita in the world – it’s amazing there’s anything leftover to export! The country has the largest collection, over two million bottles, in the world, stored in underground cellars, some stretching for over two hundred and fifty kilometres! As the main importer of Moldovan wine, Russia still has the country in its palm somewhat. In 2006, over a diplomatic spitting contest, mother Russia banned Moldovan wine imports which crippled the industry. They have repeated the ban again in 2013 when Moldova applied to the EU.
The strip of land east of the Dniester River to the Ukrainian border remains a huge roadblock to Moldova’s hopes of achieving EU membership. The breakaway state declared independence in 1990 which sparked a war as they did not wish to separate from the Soviet Union, as the rest of Moldova did. Since 1992 the area known as Transnistria has been hot and cold and we have known other travellers that have been through the region, but with the recent events between Russia and Ukraine, we weren’t about to risk anything.
The bus station reminded me of those in Central America, tucked behind busy markets with endless rows of minivans shouting out their destinations to passersby. We were on our way to the town of Trebujeni, as we had read about a sort of ‘open air’ museum complex of ruins and ancient monasteries in caves. Luckily the word monastery is the almost the same in the Moldovan language (Romanian) but trying to decipher the network of minibuses was proving difficult. We found a ‘helpful’ driver who claimed he knew where we wanted to go so we summoned all of our caution into one big ball, and threw it as hard as we could to the wind and hopped in! A little over an hour later we were on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere, and what we could glean from the driver was that if we walked two kilometres in the direction he was pointing, we would find a taxi…uh…okay? And with that…he was gone! With no choice but to follow his advice we sauntered up the road and in the distance we saw what appeared to be some type of small wooden shelter, like a bus stop, with a few people milling about. As we approached a young guy uttered “taxi“? And pointed to his old, two door, hatchback with blacked out windows and with caution already thrown to the wind, we reminded each other of our love and followed the stranger to his car. To our relief, he had another passenger, a young woman, who had been waiting for other fares to fill the car. As it turned out, the bus driver had been more helpful than we’d originally thought.
Outside of the capital city, Moldova really is like stepping back in time. It was difficult to put our finger on what exactly was so different, then Katie noticed, “there’s no farm equipment.” And that was it, all these farms being ploughed by hand, animals and old wooden tools like people demonstrate for us at pioneer displays in amusement parks! It was a subtle but shocking observation. After arriving at the site, we weren’t really prepared for how large of an area it covered and the signs are really unclear about how to visit the area and which way to go. We pondered and walked around for a while just happy to be somewhere so obscure.
After a day spent exploring the church, and the adjacent village it was time to head back to the city.
Have you been to Moldova? Tell us about your experiences!